Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other sundry embarrassments coming out of the current White House.
Big news for the Korean Peninsula: Two notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian leaders who have been trading childish insults and comparing the size of their respective nuclear buttons for the past year will meet in a hastily arranged summit in a couple of months. A resolution to a decades-long conflict is all-but-inevitable, and Trump’s already making space in his curio cabinet for the Nobel Peace Prize. Or maybe not – the White House has issued three contradictory statements about whether they’ll put any preconditions on the proposed tete-a-tete.
The two men were both born of privilege and trained in the family business. Hair-Club Habyarimana learned the art of New York real estate scams – hiring undocumented workers, stiffing contractors, leaving investors holding the bag on bad deals. He learned about licensing the family name to gaudy buildings and shoddy products. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, was trained in palace intrigue, the ruthless exercise of state power and international affairs.
Last September, The Washington Post reported that “North Korean government officials have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump.” On the other side of the table will be Trump, who may have watched some episodes of M*A*S*H in the 1970s and now refuses to take counsel from anyone other than Jivanka and the hosts of Fox and Friends. Let’s keep in mind that he’s also overseen an unprecedented exodus of career foreign service officers from the State Department.
We’ll happily acknowledge that any move toward détente is an improvement over the course that we’ve been on, but we suspect that it won’t end well. The most likely scenario – if there is a meeting between these venal narcissists – is that Kim Jong Un will flatter Trump’s ego, and perhaps halt nuclear weapons testing if he’s satisfied they work, and Trump will give up the farm for it. (The Pentagon announced this week that they’ll give Trump the stupid military parade he’s been pining for, but it won’t feature tanks – they’d damage DC’s infrastructure. We imagine Kim Jong Un won’t be similarly concerned.)
This is what North Korean leaders have wanted for the past 70 years: a presidential summit that puts them on equal footing with the US. It’ll be an unparalleled propaganda coup for Kim Jong Un — the image of him shaking hands with a smiling American president will be played on a loop by North Korean state media forever.
He called in sick and is now building a bunker behind his house. https://t.co/CsuSNE3Ae7
— Joshua Holland (@JoshuaHol) March 10, 2018
But again, maybe it won’t happen. In a week that began with former Trump aide Sam Nunberg melting down on national TV, this North Korean summit may yet come to nothing. If so, it’ll prove to be the shiniest object yet.
That said, here are a few stories you may have missed amid all the ruckus.
“As Alabama’s junior senator, Jeff Sessions was far more involved than previously known in helping two of his top contributors derail a federal environmental cleanup effort,” report Russ Choma and Nick Schwellenback for Mother Jones. “The stalled cleanup is now at the center of a federal bribery case spearheaded by the Justice Department, posing a serious conflict of interest for Sessions, who is now attorney general.”
Maybe he’ll recuse himself from the matter as he did with the Russia investigation. We kid.
Speaking of the Justice Department, this week it sided with an anti-vaxxer in Wisconsin who sued her employer for forcing her to get a flu shot despite her deeply held belief that the Bible told her not to put “certain substances” into her “Holy Temple,” according to Elie Mystal at Above the Law.
Here’s the thing: the woman, one Barnell Williams, works in a county-run nursing home. As Mystal points out, “In terms of natural predators for old people, the flu is right up there with step-ladders and the QVC channel.” And here’s another thing: Despite the obvious health hazard, the nursing home actually has a process in place for workers who object to vaccinations – they just need to get a note from a clergy member stating that it goes against their religion, which Williams refused to provide.
It should be a clear-cut case. We wouldn’t let devout Amish people work as bus-drivers if their conscience didn’t allow them to drive. But under Sessions, “anywhere somebody’s deeply held religious belief is in the position to hurt or humiliate others, the United States Department of Justice is there to provide legal cover.”
And speaking of the environment, EPA honcho Scott Pruitt, the high-flying climate-change denier who, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, repeatedly sued the agency he now heads, wanted to troll America by “stag[ing] public debates challenging climate change science.”
Lisa Friedman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report for the WaPo that “the idea of publicly critiquing climate change on the national stage has been a notable theme for Scott Pruitt…. For nearly a year he has championed the notion of holding military-style exercises known as red team, blue team debates, possibly to be broadcast live, to question the validity of climate change.”
Soon-to-be-former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly put the kibosh on the plan. Whether the decision made Trump sad is as yet unknown.
Juliet Eilpern and Brady Dennis report for the WaPo that the head of Pruitt’s security team, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, moonlights “as a principal of Rockville-based Sequoia Security Group,” and he “advised EPA officials to hire a member of the management team at Sequoia” to sweep Pruitt’s office for bugs.
Pruitt was also one of four Cabinet members who were “scolded” by White House lawyers last week at John Kelly’s request, according to CNN. Cristina Alesci reported that “internal watchdogs have launched at least nine audits, reviews or investigations across several Cabinet agencies, and stories about first-class travel, expensive office furniture, and internal strife have become commonplace.”
The other officials who received a stern talking-to were Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
It gets better:
During the meetings, the White House officials asked agencies to flag any possible problems, including ongoing investigations or audits.
But shortly after the session with Zinke, CNN published a report with several examples that ethics watchdogs say raise questions about whether Zinke is misusing his travel privileges, despite receiving approval from the department’s lawyer and ethics officer.
The White House was disappointed after meeting with Zinke because his agency failed to mention the story, of which Interior was aware and quoted a department spokesperson on the record…
ProPublica has put together a valuable database of almost 2,500 Trump political appointees. In a story that we think should have gotten far more attention than it did, they report:
At least 187 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists, and despite President Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” many are now overseeing the industries they once lobbied on behalf of. We’ve also discovered ethics waivers that allow Trump staffers to work on subjects in which they have financial conflicts of interest. In addition, at least 254 appointees affiliated with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and at least 125 staffers from prominent conservative think tanks are now working in the federal government, many of whom are on teams to repeal Obama-era regulations.
While most swamps only go up to ten, this one actually goes to 11.
The AP reports that “the former CEO of a payday lending company that had been under investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has asked to be considered for the top job at the watchdog agency.”
And Allied Progress, a progressive watchdog group, obtained a series of emails “that paints the picture of a cozy relationship between [CFPB interim boss Mick] Mulvaney and [Janet Lewis Matricciani,] the former head of World Acceptance Corporation, a predatory lender that showered him with thousands of dollars in campaign cash.”
For reasons that are elusive – perhaps it’s simply because New York and New Jersey are blue states that voted against Trump by large margins — Sunkist Stalin has threatened to veto any spending bill that funds a much needed tunnel project between the two states.
INTERESTING: The Federal Government is helping build a ferry service from NYC to Jared Kushner’s resort in Long Branch [New Jersey]. This is expected to increase the value of Kushner’s property by up to 50%.
The Mafia Family strikes again!
— Ed Krassenstein (@EdKrassen) March 9, 2018
Relatedly, Kayleigh McEnany, CNN’s relentlessly perky Trump surrogate, wrote a piece this week titled, “Jared Kushner is quietly tackling Washington’s swamp.” And we laughed so hard.
Finally, in what may be further evidence that the president is in fact a 4chan troll, we get this Fresh Hell via the Tampa Bay Times: “Trump blocks access to puppy mill inspections as Florida weighs dog store legislation.”
We will just note here that Donald Trump is the first president in 130 years to not have a First Dog.
Never trust a man who doesn’t like dogs. pic.twitter.com/DmqmRJOPFK
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) May 29, 2017